It began, as these things always do, with a routine visit to the dentist. Except that this time she noticed what looked like an abrasion on the roof of my mouth. Had anything happened, she asked, that might have caused it? I might have burned my mouth on a piping hot slice of cheese pizza, I said. It’s probably nothing, she said. But wanted to see me in two weeks to be sure. Two weeks later it hadn’t gone away. Come back in ten days. If it’s still there, perhaps we’ll biopsy it, she said. Ten days later I had a referral to an ENT specialist.
It takes a month to be seen by a specialist, so I had plenty more time to think. Like when I sipped my coffee in the morning or brushed my teeth at night. I was promising myself things. If I get through this and it’s not cancer, I muttered, I’m never going to worry about all this little stuff. I’m done quarreling with my wife over how to make the bed, properly. I’m through gnashing my teeth about petty deadlines at work. Finished worrying about money. And so on.
After the ENT doc dismissed my case as hardly worthy of a visit, I felt pretty good. But that was 8 am and I headed into work. By day’s end I said to my wife, You know—I don’t feel as relieved as I thought I would. In the days that followed I did have moments of joy and gratitude for the doctor’s all-clear. Snow fell one day and I gazed at the flocked forest that surrounds our home as if I had never seen this before. But more often I found myself annoyed by the same daily disruptions, angry at the same petty aggressions, anxious about the same possible outcomes I could not control.
We tend to believe that some big event is going to change our frame of mind, that we’ll be different after we get through this or that big day. Yet how we do anything is how we do everything.
The day Thicht Nat Hanh died we were hosting a dinner party. As we sat at table, everyone paused, and, as if we could hear the master inviting us, breathed. Then I read his words:
Peace can exist only in the present moment. It is ridiculous to say “Wait until I finish this, then I will be free to live in peace.” What is “this”? A diploma, a job, a house, the payment of a debt? If you think that way, peace will never come. There is always another “this” that will follow the present one. If you are not living in peace at this moment, you will never be able to. If you truly want to be at peace, you must be at peace right now. Otherwise, there is only “the hope of peace some day.
I don’t know what others were thinking, but I was running my tongue over the roof of my mouth and remembering.